Australia: Five work health and safety risks to avoid when resources are stretched

We are all under pressure to do more with less. We don't always have the luxury of as much time, personnel, equipment and money to do things the way we would prefer. While this may be an economic reality for business, it's important to remember that your obligations under work health and safety (WHS) law have not changed to accommodate economic need. The outcome: we need to achieve the same result with fewer resources.

  1. Poor planning

Careful planning is critical to minimise the risks that can arise when people are faced with the pressure of deadlines and tight budgets. This will enable proper consideration of the equipment, skills and experience needed to do the job. It will facilitate a risk assessment of the work to be done and how those risks can be eliminated or controlled. Additionally, planning will give you the time you need to source equipment and personnel from reputable suppliers who will help you meet your WHS obligations. Proper planning will also help you to assess how much time is really needed to do the work, and to manage the work to meet that timeframe. Where timeframes are short, planning will help you to eliminate inefficiency from the project or task, increasing the opportunity of meeting the deadline safely.

Businesses must continue to send the message that shortcuts are not acceptable and that the safety requirements of the company are not to be compromised.
  1. Distraction and inattention

As businesses adjust their workforce to respond to the current economic pressures, it is common for workers to take on additional roles. As staff members are lost, their workload is shared among those remaining. This increase in job pressures and the need to juggle several tasks could lead to distraction and a loss of attention to detail. This often results in poor planning, poor implementation, missed deadlines or non-compliance with the businesses' safety objectives, processes and targets.

  1. Taking shortcuts

When under pressure, it is tempting to take shortcuts. This could mean skipping important steps in the task or planning phase, or selecting people or equipment that are not suitable for the work to be undertaken. In many cases, taking a shortcut comes out of a desire to please, to want to get the job done, and to meet the timeframes and budget restrictions. But beware: the effects of this can be fatal.

  1. Lack of supervision

Quality supervision is critical to managing the WHS risks associated with shortcuts, poor planning or implementation of safe work practices. It is important that supervisors are not so stretched that they no longer have the time to effectively supervise, and that they are not too distracted that they cannot properly assess the work being supervised.

  1. Patchy paperwork

All too often the paper trail suffers when we are under pressure and faced with time or resource constraints. However, the importance of good documentation cannot be understated. When something goes wrong, it is the paperwork that can provide evidence of the quality, detail and planning of the work.

This could include evidence of the level of skill and experience of the workers involved, the training that was provided to them and the instructions given to them on the relevant work activity.

Further, this paperwork may also form part of the due diligence of those who have director duties or hold officer positions within the organisation. Without this paperwork, the memory of those involved in the planning or the work itself will be all you have to rely on as evidence. This is risky, as WHS questions and investigations tend to come up years after the event, and are often about something that was a routine part of their day, making it difficult to remember.

What should businesses do?

Businesses must continue to send the message that shortcuts are not acceptable and that the safety requirements of the company are not to be compromised. They must provide enough resources for proper and quality supervision to take place and foster a workplace culture that supports timely planning and uses it as an opportunity to promote WHS and efficiency.

Businesses must keep their paperwork up to date. This will equip them with the information they need to better defend the company and their staff in the event of an incident, and to minimise their legal exposure. Good paperwork may also help to demonstrate to the regulator why a prosecution is not in the public interest and should not be commenced.

On the flip side, failing to address and minimise these risks has the potential to increase your company's legal exposure and therefore financial pressure. Legal action and investigations can result in significant monetary penalties, legal fees as well as the potential loss of future work.

WHS management is an expense, but the business will benefit far more from a proactive spend in WHS than in post-incident WHS activities.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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